Demystifying Arcade Hardware

In my wanderings of the internet and chats with various people (both on and off line) it’s dawned on me that a lot of people don’t really know what arcade hardware is or what’s needed to run these things at home – misconceptions that it’s all ridiculously expensive (regardless of age or desirability) or that turning on a cabinet will simultaneously bankrupt the owner and drain the local power plant dry seem to be rather common.

So with that in mind I wanted to write a brief post just to show what a few bits and pieces look like and to hopefully dispel a few of the half-truths that are knocking around. Having said that as arcade gaming has been around since the 70’s there are bound to be exceptions to basically everything I say below; this post isn’t meant to cover absolutely everything that has ever been but just be a simple general starting point for the curious.

Where to start…. I suppose cabinets are as good a place as any. A basic arcade cabinet (often referred to simply as a “cab”) is just a monitor, a set of controls, a speaker, a power supply and all the wires needed to join these things to each other and whatever game you’ve got inside. As such they use about as much electricity as any other TV+console setup you’ve ever had, because that’s all they really are until you start adding hydraulic seats and other fancy things like that. If you ever open the mystical locked door on one and peek inside you’ll more often than not find a big hole, test/service buttons and the game secured to a bit of wood thanks to some screws.

Here’s an example, kindly donated by @NigzThaBoss -

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This is because on the whole cabinets are designed to be as universal as possible, with the majority of the ones arcade-at-home gamers use conforming to the JAMMA standard. JAMMA (which currently stands for Japan Amusement Machine and Marketing Association) has been around since the mid 80’s and what it means is that every JAMMA compatible game uses a standardised connector – you simply take out the old game and plug a new one in and it works without any rewiring or other trickery. JAMMA has since been replaced with the JVS standard for more modern arcade hardware but it still adheres to the same basic principles of universal compatibility, just with some more up to date bells and whistles.

Games generally come two ways – either as a motherboard+interchangeable game cart/board/disc or as single PCBs. Games come in all sorts of shapes and sizes; some are enormous things wrapped in metal, some are tiny plastic carts, some come on CDs or DVDs… the method for use is exactly the same – put your game wherever the motherboard needs it to be and then connect that up to the cabinet or supergun. Seeing them all as just funny-shaped consoles cuts through a lot of the confusion (and by extension, worry).

Below are a few photos I’ve taken of various bits of arcade hardware – notice how even though they all look different from each other they all have that JAMMA connector (the sticky-out bit with the shiny “teeth”) on one side.

SNK MVS: Motherboard/Game/Motherboard with game inserted

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Hyper Neo Geo 64: Motherboard/Game/Motherboard with game inserted/JAMMA edge (it’s a bit hidden on this board, but still there!)

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Namco System 10 board (Mr Driller 2, in this case): This is an all-in-one PCB, meaning there’s no separate game and motherboard or any way to change the game. Still connects using the same JAMMA edge though.

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IGS PGM2: Motherboard/Game/Motherboard with game inserted and supergun connected to JAMMA edge

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That last photo brings me onto the supergun, which is a very strange name for something that just acts as an interface between an arcade board and a regular home TV. They come in all shapes and sizes but they all do the same thing, which is to power your arcade hardware (either using a regular PC power supply or an arcade one), provide audio/video out (generally RGB, but occasionally s-video too) and if it isn’t already housed inside a massive arcade-style joystick it’ll have ports to connect some regular commercial controllers to it (usually Neo Geo, due to the ease of wiring).

I’ve noted the main parts on mine below, a rather basic Vogatek mk.IV, alongside a photo showing everything connected and ready to play:

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1) JAMMA connector. This is the bit that you stick onto the JAMMA edge of your game/motherboard.

2) Power supply input. I use a totally standard and uninteresting 300W PC power supply with mine.

3) RGB SCART output. Some other superguns may have s-video out instead for our non-SCART compatible friends.

4) Audio out. Plug in headphones or speakers here.

5) Controller ports. These particular ones are for Neo Geo sticks/pads.

I suppose that concludes this… whatever this was (tutorial? Show and tell? I don’t know…). In any case, I hope this has shed a little light on the practicalities of using arcade hardware at home and shown that once you get down to it it’s a lot like any other form of gaming – plug the right leads into the right ports and turn it on!